Why It Works
- Microwaving the eggplant speeds up the total cooking time significantly.
- Applying pressure to the cucumbers speeds up the quick pickling process by forcing out excess water.
- Using the mushroom soaking liquid adds a big but subtle boost of flavor to the sauce.
This vegetarian rice bowl features tender, savory braised eggplant, flavorful stir-fried vegetables, and crunchy quick-pickled cucumber. Together it makes an easy one-bowl meal that's layered with texture and flavor.
Since we wanted to keep this dish vegetarian, we skipped our go-to flavor enhancers like dashi and chicken stock. Instead, we chose to use dried shiitake mushrooms, soy sauce, and miso to add depth and richness. To maximize flavor without adding tons of work, we made sure to get the most out of every ingredient. The shiitakes, for example, are used twice: The rehydrated mushrooms are added to the vegetable stir-fry while the rehydrating liquid is used as the liquid base for the eggplant braising sauce.
The final bowl gets a little color and flavor assistance from aonori (dried green laver), kizami nori (shredded nori), and a few ready-made pickles, which you can purchase at a Japanese grocery store or online. While these products aren't necessary, they help elevate the dish significantly. And since they have long shelf lives, they can be used in similar preparations or as garnishes for any number of other dishes, rice bowl or otherwise.
- For the Pressed Quick Pickles:
- 2 Persian cucumbers (200g), sliced into thin rounds
- 1 tablespoon (15ml) rice vinegar
- 1 teaspoon Diamond Crystal kosher salt; if using table salt, use half as much by volume
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 1 teaspoon (5ml) toasted sesame oil
- For the Vegetables:
- 8 dried shiitake mushrooms
- 1 large globe eggplant (19 ounces; 550g), peeled and cut into about 1-inch cubes
- 3 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon (50ml) soy sauce, divided
- 2 tablespoons (46g) miso
- 2 teaspoons sugar
- 2 teaspoons (10ml) mirin
- 2 tablespoons (30ml) canola oil, or other neutral-flavored oil, divided
- 1 small red bell pepper (8 ounces; 225g), stemmed, seeded, and sliced into thin strips
- 1 Thai bird chili, stemmed and sliced thinly (optional, see note)
- 1 medium clove garlic, sliced
- 8 ounces (250g) mung bean sprouts
- 1 teaspoon (5ml) rice vinegar
- 1 teaspoon (5ml) toasted sesame oil
- One 1-inch piece fresh peeled ginger (10g), julienned
- 1 medium clove garlic (3g), minced
- To Finish:
- Kizami nori (optional, see note)
- Takanazuke (pickled mustard greens) (optional, see note)
- Pickled ginger (optional, see note)
- Aonori (optional, see note)
- Sesame seeds (optional, see note)
- 2 scallions, white and light green parts, thinly sliced
- 5 cups hot cooked rice, for serving
For the Pressed Quick Pickles: Place cucumbers in a pickle press or in a small, zip-top plastic bag. Add rice vinegar, salt, sugar, and sesame oil and stir briefly to combine. If using a pickle press, attach lid and adjust spring to exert pressure on cucumber rounds. If using zip-top bag, seal bag, making sure to remove as much air as possible. Place bag between two 1/4 sheet pans and place a 1-pound weight on top (such as a can of tomatoes). Leave pressed pickles in brine for at least 30 minutes and up to 8 hours.
For the Vegetables: In a heat-proof container, combine dried shiitake mushrooms with 1 1/4 cups hot water and let stand until mushrooms are fully hydrated, about 15 minutes. Once hydrated, squeeze excess liquid from mushrooms and slice into thin strips. Reserve 1 cup of mushroom soaking liquid, taking care to include as little sediment as possible. Discard any excess.
Place eggplant cubes in a single layer on a microwave-safe plate. Place plate in microwave and cook on high until eggplant is tender enough that you can easily squeeze a cube between two fingers, 7-8 minutes. Meanwhile, combine 2 tablespoons soy sauce with miso, sugar, mirin, and 1 cup of reserved mushroom soaking liquid in small bowl and, using a whisk, stir until mixture is blended and smooth.
In a 10-inch cast-iron skillet, heat 1 tablespoon canola oil over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add mushrooms and cook, stirring, until nicely browned and beginning to dry, about 2 minutes. Add red bell pepper and cook, stirring frequently, until just softened, about 1 minute. Add Thai bird chili (if using) and garlic, stir to combine, and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add bean sprouts and cook, stirring constantly, until they are coated in oil and just softening, about 2 minutes. Add the remaining 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon soy sauce and stir to combine. Transfer stir-fried vegetables to a bowl and reserve. Rinse and wipe out skillet (no need to wash.)
Add 1 tablespoon canola oil to skillet and place pan over medium heat until shimmering. Add julienned ginger and minced garlic and cook, stirring frequently, until ginger is very fragrant, 1-2 minutes. Stir mushroom liquid mixture briefly, then add to the pan, followed by eggplant cubes. Bring liquid to a boil, then lower heat to maintain a vigorous simmer. Cook, stirring occasionally, until eggplant is tender and sauce has thickened slightly, about 5 minutes.
To Serve: Toss stir-fried vegetables with the rice vinegar and sesame oil. Spoon hot rice into each serving bowl. Top with kizami nori, if using. Spoon about a tablespoon of the eggplant sauce over each serving of rice, then divide eggplant cubes among bowls evenly. Divide stir-fried vegetables among bowls evenly. Place a handful of pressed cucumber quick pickles in each bowl along with a small mound of takanazuke and pickled ginger strips, if using. Garnish stewed eggplant with aonori and sesame seeds, if using, then top with sliced scallions. Serve immediately.
10-inch cast iron skillet, pickle press (optional)
You may substitute red pepper flakes or a singled dried Thai chili snapped in two for the fresh sliced Thai bird chili, if you like; you can also omit using the chili entirely.
Aonori, kizami nori, pickled ginger, and takanazuke can be purchased in a well-stocked Japanese grocery store or online. While they provide complexity of flavor and textural variation to the bowl, they are entirely optional.
Make-Ahead and Storage
While every element can be made ahead of time, we do not suggest reheating the stir-fried vegetables. They can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for several days, and should be served cold as leftovers. Eggplant kept in an airtight container will keep in the refrigerator for a week, and it can be reheated in a microwave or on the stovetop. Quick pickles should be eaten within 24 hours of preparation.